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The Traits of a Successful Conductor-Educator

Mike Lawson • Archives • May 10, 2012

By Victor Vallo Jr.

Today’s school band, orchestra, and choir directors are really conductor-educators who must simultaneously perform the roles of leader, musician, and pedagogue. There are a number of personality traits that facilitate this feat, both on and off the podium. These personal, musical, and pedagogical qualities and skills help the music teacher reach his or her musical and educational goals. This article will discuss such traits by first focusing on their theoretical importance and then examining their practical importance to the successful music conductor-educator.

There are a number of books and articles that tell us of the variety of traits considered important to becoming an effective music teacher. In an article written in 1989, Joy Lawrence noted that successful music directors often display certain qualities that help them achieve their goals and that these qualities can be grouped into three general categories: personal qualities, musical knowledge and skills, and effective teaching techniques. References to such traits are also mentioned by other authors who were more specific in their research and found that self-confidence, sense of humor, sincerity, human understanding, restraint, moral character and friendliness were helpful for the music teacher and conductor. Ward Woodbury found that leadership behaviors were also important to have for a conductor-educator, while yet another author stated that the music director is expected to lead and combine the skills of a musicologist, instrumentalist, community organizer, and psychologist to accomplish his goal of leading an ensemble to communicate musically.

The effects of conductor behaviors on students was the subject of a study by Cornelia Yarbrough, who discovered that when an ensemble director’s noticeable behavior in a rehearsal is dynamic, it can positively affect the students’ performance and attitude. She also found that the students preferred to be taught by the high magnitude conductor and were more attentive to the high magnitude conductor as compared to the low magnitude conductor. Other studies have been done on traits in relation to teaching and conducting music, finding that it was important to have the ability to use effective rehearsal techniques, good verbal communication, and a sound knowledge of psychology in leading successful rehearsals.

Throughout the various books and articles on teaching and conducting, many traits were found that included certain personal, musical, and pedagogical traits and skills needed by today’s conductor-educator to be successful, both on and off the podium. Here is a summary of some 27 common traits that were commonly and consistently mentioned in these studies, articles, and books:

While many sources allude to the theoretical importance of having and demonstrating various personal, musical, and pedagogical traits for teaching and conducting, it was decided to compare theory with practice to see if there was a correlation of importance. Information on the practical importance of these various traits by school ensemble directors was gathered through an opinion survey sent to a random sample of current ensemble directors who are middle school and high school band and orchestra directors in several states in the United States. These ensemble directors were asked to rate 27 traits on a standardized scale with “5” rated as the highest in importance and “1” rated as the lowest in importance. Here is what was found from these surveyed school band and orchestra directors. Hopefully, this will be of practical value to today’s music teachers.

The results show that many, if not all, of the personal, musical, and pedagogical traits were considered important by these surveyed ensemble directors (Table 1). The traits rated the highest were enthusiasm, aural skills, communication ability, self-confidence, assertiveness, and mastery of subject matter. Among the lowest rated traits were expressive gestures, knowledge of music history and music theory, philosophy of education and knowledge of psychology. Asked to list separately what the ensemble directors considered the two most important traits, these teachers consistently mentioned enthusiasm and human understanding. This appears to hint that the directors’ perceptions and beliefs that the personal traits are considered to be of the most practical and important in successful teaching and conducting. It is also interesting to note that these surveyed ensemble directors rated the three categories in different degrees of importance as well (Table 2). It was found that the three categories of traits were ranked in importance as follows:

  • Personal Traits: 1st Importance Mean: 4.547
  • Pedagogical Traits: 2nd Importance Mean: 4.347
  • Musical Traits: 3rd Importance Mean: 4.218

The information from this survey also suggests that all three categories of traits (personal, musical, and pedagogical) are considered essential in both the articles and books as well as by the school ensemble directors themselves, but in varying degrees of importance. Interestingly, both the articles and the results of the survey seem to indicate that the personal traits are considered the music conductor-educator’s strongest asset with enthusiasm being the highest and most valued overall trait. This may imply that the personal qualities provide a foundation for the teacher’s personal and interpersonal skills which enable him/her to earn the student’s respect and attention. When students hold a positive view of their teacher as personable, the classroom environment can and generally does become more conducive to teaching and learning.

In addition, if would seem helpful for music teachers to also know that having a demonstrable balance of both musical and pedagogical qualities would enable their students to hopefully see and realize that their ensemble director has such skill-based traits and is willing to demonstrate these traits for their educational success. Sometimes students need to know that their ensemble director can both “talk the talk” and “walk the walk,” which can only lead to students’ increased willingness to learn and growing respect for the music teacher.

But what does all of this mean?

The results suggest first of all that ensemble directors believe that whoever possesses and demonstrates a blend of certain personal, musical, and pedagogical traits can be a successful conductor-educator in the music classroom/rehearsal hall. That being said, the results may also suggest for ensemble directors to be aware of and focus more on developing one’s personal qualities in working with students, faculty, and staff. A proper balance of all three sets of qualities could help ensemble directors to provide better and more meaningful and memorable musical experiences for all of their students.

After all is said and done, here are also some practical and hopefully helpful implications and things to think about from all of this:

1) Because of the relatively high importance of the personal qualities as found in the articles and books and as deemed by the surveyed music teachers, there should be a conscious effort by music teachers to concentrate on and demonstrate these personal traits by continuing to work on personal and interpersonal skills in promoting healthy working relationships with students, parents, and administration, both on and off the podium.

2) Because enthusiasm was rated highest by the conductor-educators, there is an implication that the music teacher’s subjective qualities (such as personality) are deemed most valuable and practical to have and demonstrate in teaching and conducting.

3) Because expressive gestures was rated among the lowest in importance, ensemble directors should consider teaching their students about what these gestures can and do mean on the podium. Another suggestion is possibly using expressive gestures more often so that their students will be able to recognize and respond to them more quickly and interactively in rehearsals and performances. An article by Corey Francis, “Expressive Conducting,” highlights this point and is worth reading.

4) With an extensive number of these 27 traits being derived from articles and books, it is apparent that a number of these traits can overlap. The resulting implication is that these traits can be separated into three distinct categories, be interrelated, and can be used all at the same time in teaching and conducting school bands, orchestras and choirs.

In summary, through a balanced blend of personal, musical, and pedagogical traits, conductor-educators – and all music teachers, for that matter – should have and demonstrate a variety of traits, qualities, and skills with which to guide students to their own learning. By the same token, with better prepared teacher/role models, students will be better prepared for the real world and to hopefully become better people. Students often remember not only how well their ensembles played, but also well they were treated as people. As the saying goes, “People only care about how much you know when they know how much you care!” Let us all continue to do our best in teaching music to today’s music students while realizing that whom we are teaching today may become tomorrow’s conductor-educators!

PERSONAL TRAITS: enthusiasm, assertiveness, commanding presence, friendliness, human understanding, integrity, organizational ability, self-confidence, self-discipline.

MUSICAL TRAITS: aural skills, baton technique, expressive gestures, knowledge of music history, knowledge of musical styles, musical modeling skills, personal musicianship, and knowledge of musical instruments.

PEDAGOGICAL TRAITS: application of rehearsal methods, communication ability, having goals and objectives, knowledge of psychology, knowledge of assessment/evaluation, mastery of subject matter, having a philosophy of education, being a role model, and use of resources.

Dr. Victor Vallo Jr. is a professor of Music and the chair of the Department of Music at Georgia College & State University (GCSU). Dr. Vallo has been conductor and guest conductor for a number of orchestras and bands around the country, including the Immaculata Wind Symphony, Anderson Symphony Orchestra (SC), Arkansas Festival Orchestra, Alabama All-State Orchestra, and South Carolina All-State Orchestra. Currently, Dr. Vallo is the music director/conductor of the Oconee Regional Symphony Orchestra.

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